The Many Paths to Libertarianism

Patri’s arguments had great personal resonance. I share his goal, his yearning to live in a more free society. I practice what he dubs “folk activism” — and which he writes off as obviously hopeless. My entire professional life I’ve done journalism, most of it with an implicit or explicit libertarian message.

I’ve also, as has Patri, been involved in some small, temporary attempts to forge intentional communities with more liberty and less outside control than typical American life, in the context of the experimental community/art festival Burning Man. From that shared set of attitudes and experiences, I am reasonably certain: Patri is positively right — except in those places where I’m pretty sure he’s wrong.

When he’s making positive assertions, he’s fully convincing. Power undoubtedly has inertia. The incentive structure and entire intellectual ecosystem of the world weight toward statism.

Frontiers and experimentation are both vital elements of finding valuable new ways for human beings to live and relate. Technology and the incentives it generates and possibilities it creates change culture and beliefs in huge ways. Patri astutely explains technology’s limits when it comes to libertarianism — we are bodies moving through space and time, not merely digitized ideas, and those out to control us can’t be merely evaded in cyberspace.

Yet the World Wide Web, for example, helps us see one of the ironies of Patri’s position. One of the ways that technology has most importantly changed the world is that it has made the old-fashioned goals of “folk activism” — spreading ideas, changing minds — immensely easier, and more fun.

Thus it’s when he’s making his negative assertions that I think he’s probably wrong. “Folk activism” — talking, debating, and proselytizing, as he defines it — does indeed have the potential to see libertarians “changing system-wide incentives.” Admittedly, it’s a long, slow, so far largely failed slog — if changes in every libertarian direction already are what we need. The turnings of democracy have not yet gotten us zero taxes, a completely tort-based “regulatory” regime, complete drug legalization, and an end to tariffs. But they have gotten us lower taxes, an end to antiquated systems of trucking and airline regulations, medical marijuana in some states, lower tariffs in many areas, and a systematized regime that helps in some cases stymie protectionist reflexes.

I know it’s not enough. For someone as activist and eager as Patri to live the way he wants to live, unquestionably it’s unsatisfactory. But I’m not convinced, in the long view, that it’s utterly impossible and futile.

When it comes to trying to declare war on any particular form or method of libertarian activism, I tend to be a conscientious objector. I have a soft spot for any effort that helps make another libertarian. As I detailed at great length in my history of the postwar American libertarian movement, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, the “folk activism” of every active libertarian effort until the 1970s was explicitly not about actually moving the institutions of society and governance in a libertarian direction — that is, not really about making a libertarian society at all in the active, direct sense. Rather, the efforts of groups from the Foundation for Economic Education, to the Institute for Humane Studies, to the Nathaniel Branden Institute, to the Freedom School, to numerous libertarian journals large and small (mostly small) was about turning people into libertarians through economic and philosophical reasoning.

Underlying these efforts was probably a loose and not fully worked out folk belief in democracy — that you make enough libertarians in America, America’s political institutions will get more libertarian. But all the early American libertarians understood politicians would be lagging indicators of popular belief, and that the cultural and intellectual battle would be long — longer than Patri is willing to deal with, no doubt.

With all the sclerosis and bad incentives of the current state and current electoral system, I still think that it’s very possible — indeed, very likely — that an America with, say, ten times as many people who believe in the rough libertarian vision of how human governance should work will create a very different ball game than the one we are currently suffering though. In that sense, I applaud the clever political hack of the Free State Project — concentrating the numerical powers of what libertarians we’ve already got in a smaller democratic polity, though I share Patri’s doubts of how far one state in the United States of today can go in a libertarian direction.

I’ve been thinking about Patri’s particular methods, as I’m working on a forthcoming article for Reason about the Seasteading idea. One interesting thing I found was that even among the people most interested in thinking, talking, blogging, model-building, supporting, and conference-attending about Seasteading, a firmly stated dedication to actually living on one where it’s most important — in the early, experimental phase — was pretty thin.

Patri is asking a lot of the people who he wants — needs — to share his dream. To uproot everything about the way they’ve lived and relocate to a strange and hostile environment is a big deal. He uses the phrase free society, not merely personal freedom. He doesn’t want to be a hermit — there are already ways, which I’m sure he’s aware of, for people to whom being uncoerced is the primary value to slip away from those craving to tax and regulate them. But they aren’t much fun, if you value the company of your fellow humans or want a family.

Patri may be right to rely on a sort of pop-evolutionary biology explanation for why people like trying to use verbal and written reasoning to convince the people around them or the world at large to turn more libertarian, rather than his sort of gritty, build-your-own-nation-on-floating-platform, difficult-but-rewarding activism.

But I think a more likely explanation can be found in that old favorite social science of the libertarian: economics. It’s simply a lot less effort, a lot lower personal cost, to pursue the path of folk activism. For decades many libertarians have upbraided others to start putting their money where their mouth is, to start building real libertarian institutions, even to start actively meeting the social needs that most people think we need a government for, to show-not-tell the world that this unbridled individual liberty thing can really work. And for decades most libertarians have found writing, talking, and thinking a more congenial path, one whose costs seemed easier to manage.

This is true, at least if you are divorcing the means from the ends. That is, if achieving the end of a libertarian world is actually necessary for you to think your activism was worthwhile ex post, then it’s all a waste of effort.

But I strongly suspect much libertarian activism is more consumption expense anyway — and a good thing, too, because, as obviously underlies this whole debate, it’s largely out of any individual activist’s hands to make sure the end goal is reached. Even Seasteading requires the active, very active, agreement and efforts of other people, though thankfully not as many other people as the folk activist “convince everyone to become a libertarian” democratic nation-changing alternative.

The social world is not, ultimately, ours to make, except through persuasion and violence. Patri has a decidedly brilliant and decidedly eccentric way around that timeless and terrible dilemma — creating an actual completely new social world, with nothing but self-selected comrades. Whether even that can get around the problems he smartly identifies about the overall political ecosystem remains to be seen. Most baldly, will a world of nation-states actually allow small groups to create their own free communities in the ocean?

The irony of Patri’s intellectual position — that “folk activism” within the typical political and intellectual context is hopeless — is that it doesn’t matter if he’s right or not. All that matters is, can he, in the world we live in, launch a viable Seastead?

It is a core message of libertarianism that most people are wrong — that an organized state with a monopoly on rule-making and force is not necessary to accomplish all vital social tasks. Libertarians think we can Do It Ourselves. The DIY (Do It Yourself) culture of computers and of Burning Man in which Patri has marinated has convinced him of something true: that we can, if we are smart and brave, build something like our own culture from the ground up. It’s a great thing to try to convince libertarians of — but the truth of his positive message doesn’t mean that old-fashioned folk activism is as inherently worthless as he argues.

Something I wrote right here at Cato Unbound in 2007 is relevant here, so I’ll repeat myself: “I don’t know what will prove the best and most effective strategy for liberty. I think a lot of actions that are less than “best” or “most effective” are still worth doing, and that the inclinations and beliefs of each specific libertarian will be the best guide toward what will make them most effective at what they are doing — even if that particular thing isn’t the most effective thing!”

I wish Seasteading the best of luck — which means wishing that Patri’s “folk activism” succeeds in convincing enough people to try it. And I hope one day to join Patri in a toast on a working Seastead: a toast to all the many, many paths to trying to create a more libertarian social order.

Brian Doherty is a senior editor at Reason magazine and author ofThis is Burning Man (BenBella), Radicals for Capitalism (PublicAffairs) and Gun Control on Trial (Cato Institute).

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, Patri Friedman charges libertarian activists with falling victim to bias: Specifically, they seem to suffer from the belief that advocacy and education are enough to change public policy. Friedman suggests otherwise, and he recommends that much more effort be put into demonstration projects that will show how a libertarian world might work. Not only will these projects do more than mere persuasion toward winning the war of ideas, but they will also allow individual libertarians to live in a much freer society, and they will exert competitive pressure on existing governments to reform themselves. Friedman discusses several such projects, including his own, the Seasteading Institute.

Response Essays

  • Brian Doherty argues that Patri Friedman is both right in some ways and wrong in others. He’s right when he argues that incentives and technologies largely determine the shape of government today, and create the problems that libertarians tirelessly point out. He’s wrong, however, to dismiss “folk activism” entirely: Not only has it achieved some clear though incremental good, but it also helps create more libertarians, and at some point, this effort seems likely to bear fruit. Not only that, but seasteading relies on some folk activism itself, in convincing a large number of people that it would be a good idea to try. On the whole, Doherty welcomes seasteading as one of many possible paths to a more libertarian world.

  • Jason Sorens reviews several important historical developments, including the rise of free trade in the nineteenth century and the growth of the welfare state in the twentieth. He concludes that structural change matters, and that incentives play a larger role than ideology in determining the type of government we get. He then considers several of the key challenges of both Seasteading and the Free State Project, as well as a few encouraging developments in recent politics that appear tied to the rise of the Free State movement. He counsels patience, but also proposes several strategies for moving forward.

  • Peter Thiel shares the belief that politics is mostly futile, a conclusion he reached after years of activism. In particular, he believes that democratic politics is unlikely to bring about libertarian outcomes. Fortunately, politics is just one sphere of human life, and it’s possible, he argues, to create technologies that minimize its reach. Thiel describes a “deadly race” between politics and technology, in which human freedom is the prize. The goal of libertarian activism should not be to win in politics, he argues, but to escape it.

Letters to the Editor